The Activities and Colour in this American City Will Surprise You
By: Amanda Woods
December 21, 2018
As far as first meals in a Texan city go, it is an unexpected choice. Vegan and Ayurvedic aren’t words that spring to mind when planning a trip to San Antonio, but at Pharm Table chef and owner Elizabeth Johnson has built a strong following and sweet potato tacos and quinoa crust pizzas are sounding pretty good after the drive from Houston.
But as Johnson talks us through the menu I realise there’s something unusual about this vegan restaurant. Animal protein can be added to some dishes. Which sounds a lot like another way of saying meat. Johnson laughs as she admits it would be crazy to open a vegan restaurant without at least a little meat in San Antonio, ‘we are in Texas, my friend!’ but I soon see the animal protein from organic ranchers appears in such small portions it would take a lot of dishes to use the equivalent of a single steak.
Dining on colourful and delicious roasted, pickled and raw vegetables feels great, although it’s unclear whether it cancels out the Buc-ee’s Beaver Nuggets sweet corn puff snacks we devoured earlier that day. But as no Texas road trip is complete without a stop at one of Buc-ee’s cult convenience stores, we’ll forgive ourselves every time.
COLOUR AND MARIACHI MOVEMENT
If Tex Mex is more your thing you’ve come to the right city, and there’s a memorable meal waiting for you at Mi Tierra no matter what time of day or night you want to tuck in. Open 24 hours a day the restaurant is filled with vivid colours, including bright pinks, reds, yellows and greens everywhere from the doors and walls to the decorations on the tables and the piñatas overhead.
A family business for 76 years, Mi Tierra pays tribute to mariachi bands with an entire bar dedicated to the music, instruments, and costumes. A mariachi harp and traditional uniforms are among the displays in glass cases, and every night between 10pm and 2am mariachi bands play in the bar. On one wall photos of famous customers including Presidents Reagan, Bush Senior and Clinton are displayed, including Clinton wearing his Mi Tierra t-shirt that he wore jogging in Texas and beyond.
But it’s the walls in the back dining room that shouldn’t be missed. What started 25 years ago as a mural honouring Mexican labourers and farmers has become a wall – or rather, walls – of fame. Since taking over from the original artist 16 years ago, Robert Ytuarte has taken the number of influential Latinos on the walls to more than 100, with politicians, entertainers and business people sharing the mural with the members of La Familia Cortez, the family that owns Mi Tierra. A regular at the restaurant, Ytuarte smiles and shows us his own image on the wall, before explaining that it usually takes him two days to paint a new portrait in between answering questions from diners who are eating while he works.
REMEMBER THE ALAMO
“And they needed him at the Alamo. Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier.” As I look up at a statue of David Crockett on the Alamo Cenotaph I hear the Ballad of Davy Crocket in my head, and try to shut it down. It’s a catchy theme song but it doesn’t feel right to be singing it to myself when I know this is where David Crockett and hundreds more died in the Battle of the Alamo. One of five missions in San Antonio, the Alamo is the most famous thanks to its part in the Texas Revolution in 1836. Today the church and the Long Barrack Museum provide insights into the well and lesser-known parts of the Alamo’s 300-year history.Entrance to the Alamo church and grounds is free, but taking part in a tour or buying a souvenir in the gift shop helps support its upkeep.
Meanwhile the biggest mission in Texas, Mission San Jose, is another must see., A UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to 1720, Mission San Jose is still an active parish, holding open mass on Sundays, and is so well preserved it’s easy to imagine you’ve stepped back in time. Don’t miss the mission’s ornate Rose Window. Considered the finest example of Spanish Colonial ornamentation in North America, the window’s history and even name are somewhat of a mystery, but there’s no denying its striking beauty.
POTTER AROUND THE PEARL
When San Antonio’s Pearl Brewery closed in 2001 the area had a few years of looking sad and empty. Now, it’s one of the hottest spots to be. Top chef-owned restaurants, independent boutiques, bookstores, bakeries and cocktail bars have sprung up in the 22-acre site, which is also home to the Texas campus of the Culinary Institute of America. New life has been breathed into original buildings, including Southerleigh Fine Food and Brewing in the landmark building that was Pearl’s Brewhouse. Here we try modern takes on pub food including snapper throats that our server describes as ‘chicken wings of the sea,’ and The One in a Melon beer, brewed with fresh watermelon puree. There’s also a “Koalas, Cocker Spaniels and Unicorns’ Southerleigh draft for those who fancy cucumbers and tamarind in their brew.
Next door at The Hotel Emma, you can also raise a glass of The Three Emmas, a cocktail named for the wife and two mistresses of Pearl Brewery founder Otto Koehler who all shared the same name. When one of the two mistress Emmas shot Otto, the widow Emma took over the company and kept it going strong, even through prohibition. The designer boutique hotel Hotel Emma is named in her honour, and mixes luxury touches with original steel machinery. The hottest spots in the hotel’s bar are on velvet seats inside cast iron tanks that were once used to ferment beer. And thanks to a button to summon the bar staff you don’t even need to leave your soft seat to order the Three Emmas.
SLOW TRIPS IN SMALL BOATS
San Antonio’s River Walk is one of the highlights of the city, and a visit to the Pearl is also a chance to take a slow boat ride through two of its three sections. The 24km River Walk is divided into the Downtown Reach, the Museum Reach and the Mission Reach, and after stepping into one of these small open top boats you can travel from the Pearl in the Museum Reach to the colourful Downtown section.
Along the way our tour guide shows us River Walk sculptures and explains the stories behind interesting buildings and bridges, including the Selena Bridge where Jennifer Lopez declared she was finally free in the movie Selena, and a Miss Congeniality location I wouldn’t have picked had it not been pointed out. Now that I know it’s where Miss Rhode Island described her perfect date, I want to return to that spot on April 25th, when ‘it’s not too hot, not too cold and all you need is a light jacket.’
When our boat ride is over I walk to the historic arts village, La Villita. On the south bank of the River Walk, La Villita is a square block of art galleries, boutiques and restaurants, with markers explaining the 300-year history of some of the limestone buildings. In the Equinox Gallery I stop to admire jewellery and sculptures, and when I pause in front of a small rabbit made of nails the manager invites me to reach out and touch it. ‘Have you been to Texas before?’ He asks as I pat the nail bunny. When I explain that I’ve been to America before but not to Texas he smiles.“I hope you enjoy the difference.” And as I laugh I realise I really have.